The village awakes to the trundling of our convoy crossing the wooden bridge. We stop at the gate where our entry tickets are scrutinized to see if any more Pular can be squeezed out of us by the Gate warden.
He is unable to give us much information on the route up to Chobe other than no one has come down it this year since the rains. However, he warns us that there is no camping allowed between here and Chobe. According to Warthog, we will have no option but to camp, as it will take more than a day to get across.
At first, the going is painless.
Slowly the track narrows into a deep v rutted narrow corridor. The Ford driven by Warthog has one wheel in the rut and the other up in the edge of the bush.
The Germans with high ground clearance crawl along from one bump to the next bump fighting the steering wheel. While Williwaw in low range second gear wonders what all the fuss is about.
The ruts grow deeper. The Ford takes to the bush till she hits a root and puts his steering out of kilter. A halt is called. Straddling the ruts is not possible for the Ford so it’s back to one wheel in one wheel out. I suggest that the Unimog should open his driver window and keep an eye on his front wheels. He would find it easier if his wheels were straight rather than battling the steering all the time. I am very much appreciative of our protection plate (A heavy metal shield attached to the underside of Williwaw to protect her engine sump.) (Top TIP: Don’t go to Africa driving without having one fitted.)
The track eventually flattens out onto a dry sandy ridge called the Magwikhew Sandridge. The going gets easier and we all arrive after a few elephants and pee stops at the southern gate to Chobe called Mababe.
A stone-faced park warden welcomes us with the words that the camping site is fully booked out. This appears to be a normal Botswana park tactics in order to squeeze a few extra dollars out of the visitor. “We are not stopping.” “All we want is a transit permit.” A few minutes pass while our man takes a radio call. He returns demanding our exit tickets from Moremi. Warthog has pulled a fast one back at Moremi when we were leaving. He had told the gate warden that he and his Aussie friend were on our Park permit. The Chobe gate is now demanding that I should pay. I blew a fuse and gave Warthog a verbal rollicking.
I can tell from his eye contact that he has not the balls to strike back if I were to lay one on him. They both cough up and all is settled African style. Some shouting, some foreign exchange a transit permit and smiles all around have us once more on our way into Savuti (Chobe National Park) a remote landscape embracing sandvelds, rocky outcrops, and acacia savanna, mopane forest that are highly vulnerable to fire and dry marshlands. It used to be famous for its high intensity of wildlife. The current long dry spell has more or less put pay to that we seeing little sign of anything on four legs.
Twenty kilometres into the park we stop for the night. With a transit permit we are not supposed to stop so we pull well off the track into the bush so as any passing wardens will not spot us easily.
Pitch no 86, shows the tell-tale signs of Elephant Activity. Everything is dry as tinder. The slights spark would be whoosh for sure. Unexpected Warthog volunteers to make dinner and more amazingly show off some bush knowledge. The construct a safe campfire avoiding a bushfire. .
First digging a deep hole he then digs a trench away from the hole at about half the holes depth. He then inserts the grill of a barbecue into the hole above the trench depth. Borrowing my machete he cuts some grass and kindling. When lit a large branch is then placed in the trench and pushed along it till the end of the branch is over the fire. More branches are fed down the trench till a good hot amber base is built. It is then covered to form an oven.
(Top TIP: Bush knowledge weights nothing. How to tie slip knots and a bowline is useful. Webbing strap knots > Double sheet bend knot > Splicing > How to read a compass. Buy one of those little SAS Survival Books. An off-road vehicle needs a high jack. You need to know all its applications. Winching and lifting > How to construct different ground anchors > the use of snatch pulley block.)
After an excellent dinner we all sleep soundly, but not before Florence and Fanny’s minds are put at rest about the possibility of any Jungle Trumpeting Patrol crashing out of the surrounding bush.
Chobe is divided into four distinctly different ecosystems. Where we are the Mabane Depression is Elephant land during the dry season. So we were lucky not to encounter some of Botswana’s population of over 120,000 some of which are the largest in body size in the whole of the African.
With the fire hole filled in so there is no chance of creating a bush, we bounce back out onto the track. Late afternoon after a hard drive we arrive at Chobe main port of entrance Sedudu gate. On the requesting a visiting permit we are informed once more that the park is full. “Full of what.” “We’ve just driven across the whole god dame park without seeing another human being, never mind an Elephant or for that matter any of its original inhabitants the San people otherwise known in Botswana as the Basarwa.” It is obviously time to ring the bell and close the park, as the two park wardens are not willing to enter into discussions on the absurdity of their statements. We are marshal to the other side of the lowered barrier pole and told to come back in the morning.
A few miles outside the gate we arrive in Kasane a small town that is situated not more than an hour from Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Pitch No 89 is in a private house garden. Warthog run foul of me, getting this second bollixing for helping himself to my gin and other items without asking if it’s ok. Not another word is heard till morning when last night’s reprimand is still smouldering. It’s time to go our separate ways before it comes to blows. Warthog and Rickey roar off in the direction of Livingston while the Germans none the wiser shake hands as we depart our ways.
Returning to the Gate we decide to give Chobe a chance. Once more welcomed with the words, “the Park is full. “ Transit Permit please.” “ Please sign here.” We drive in and when out of sight we duck down a track onto the Chobe River. If there are any animals in this park they got to be near water. Not even a croc stirred. Perhaps they right the Park is full of sweet fuck all. We drive to Serondela campsite, which is supposed to be fully booked. There not a campsite occupied so we choose the best sit overlooking the river.
Pitch No 90 is under some large trees with the tell-tale bark of Baboons.
Out of the twilight arrive two uniform park wardens on foot. Permit. “This is a transit permit,” I reply pointing to both sides of us. “I know back at the Gate there are no Visiting Permits to be had as the Park is full as you can see.” “You fellows look thirsty it’s a long way back to the Gate.” A drink is accepted and a half an hour later we have two friends for life. It’s agreed that I must return to the gate in the morning and get a permit. A bottle of whisky later our cards are marked as to where all the animals are hiding. With no sign of another bottle appearing they eventually get the message that we wished to retire for the night. Off they swagger into the darkness disturbing the resident baboon and monkey rookery that continues to bark its head off for hour after their departure.
We awake to a cold morning. Florence and I warm up with some monkey/baboon zapping. (Top TIP: A Widows Memory Catapult is an effective weapon against Hyena/Baboons and unwanted camp guests.) I eventually set off back to the Gate by the main track. Not far from where we are camped I pass a ramshackle of a building. It is from where our two friends of last night arrived. No sign of either of them. I am not surprised. Once more my request for a visiting permit is met with the park is full. With what, I inquire? Fresh air. “You will have to move from site 5.” “OK, anything not to upset the other vacant sites.” On the way back, Williwaw develops a stiff gear change and seems to be overheating.
By the time I get back I am fit to leave Chobe to the maddening crowds. Florence has gone on a rooftop game drive with safari groups who have moved into site four. Fanny is feeding a real Warthog until I remind her that just because it is in a park does not mean it is not wild.
Warthog tusks can rip a lion belly open. They live in small family groups called Sounders; have no sweat glands so they wallow in mud to cover their bodies to keep cool. They have poor eyesight but an excellent sense of smell and hearing. Run with erect tails up to 50km/h. When under danger they scarper one following the other into their dens. The youngest ones go in headfirst while the male stands guard. When all are safe and sound he shuffles in backwards so his tusks are always facing any potential predators.
We stay put on site 5 for the day. I brood over the cost of a new clutch while watching the medley of invisible campers going about their business. Fanny attending to some badly overdue house chores repacks our various boxes > Florence’s, books and education material box > our book box, medical box, herbs and flour, condensed milk and other goodies box. (Top TIP: Make sure that whatever boxes you take are waterproof.)
Manfred and his wife Julian take site 3 out of the thirty odd remaining sites. He turns out to be a German dentist and a keen motor mechanic. A few pushes of Williwaw clutch pedal reveals that it is clutch fluid or the lack of that is the problem. (Top TIP: Make sure you carry spare transmission/brake/clutch fluid.) With my gloom lifted we board Manfred Nissan for a short game drive. Three hours and five visits to locations supplied by my two whiskey-swilling wardens, we throw in the towel for a cold beer back at base.
Before the final splash of the evening, color glistens on the river below us the heat of the days begins to vanish from the land without a trace. The silence is broken by two of Africa’s most recurring sounds, the early evening cricket chorus with the odd forlorn twit to woo of a distant plover. Both are a sure warning that darkness is not far off. Florence arrives back reporting not much more success than us. It seemed incomprehensible with the park so full of visitors that is has lost all of its animals.
A large full moon promises a chilly night. Long shadows in contrast to the ultraviolet rays of the sun that consume one all day long now turn every bush, every tree into ambush hides. In this sort of light, one gets a weird feeling that every sound announces the heartbreaking end to some animal’s life. You cannot help the edgy gut reaction to the slightness Crunch Even when one take’s a pee you see eyes or movement where there are none.
By the time the girls hit the sack the bush TV is almost out. We’ve all come to the conclusion that we are all still novices when it comes to spotting large herds of Chobe animals or people. It’s time to pick up the bagpipes and follow in the footsteps of Doctor Livingstone 1831-1873 to one of the main attractions in the area Musi-oa-Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders, Victoria Falls.
In the bush when there is nothing much going on, one is prone to retire early with a book. I am just going to quench the last of the fire when out of the corner of my eye my two ranger friends are approaching down a long shadow. One looks as pale as the moonbeams, the other gibberish holding a plastic bag full of beers. I am silhouetted both by the moon and flickering bush TV. There is no escape.
It’s not long before eerie stories of Ghosts, Banshees, and Men turning into snakes and off your rocker beasts attacking gullible tourists is in full flow. The piece de resistance comes when I was asked if I believe in Magic. “Of course I do.” Well tell him encourages the gibberish one. Pale face announced that the other night when he had staggered back he had laid an egg. It is hard to keep a straight face as I enquire if it was hard-boiled. By his looks of summoned up pain on his pale face, there is every chance he had indeed passed a gallstone. I feel somewhat sorry for taking the mic.
Before I surface Mr. and Mrs. Warthog have paid an early morning visit. Fanny takes one look at me calling off our departure. Chobe gets one more day to make public why it is so overcrowded. Due to my fragile state we hold fire until late afternoon to venture forth > Florence opting out. Another fruitless excursion with Williwaw overheating does nothing to endear me to my loved ones. We arrive back at camp to find Florence has being holding the monkey population at bay. They had already done a job on the tent breaking one of the poles and ripping the foot of the tent. There is one male baboon that has been bearing his teeth at her, the clever little darling taking refuge in the jeep. I give the bastard a ball bearing in the ass that sends it scarping. Investigating Williwaw’s radiator for a leak I notice that the Universal joint on Williwaws back shaft needs replacing. Down come the ammunition boxes off the roof rack. Tools and spares.
(Top TIP: Ammunition box are great for storing spares and tools. Make sure they have strong handles, and padlocks. I passed a chain through the handles padlocking them to the roof rack for security against theft. Buy padlocks that can be opened by one key (bring a spare). There is nothing more irritating than having a different key for each and every lock. Each vehicle needs its own spares/tools. What to bring and not what to bring is the question. The answer lies in many excellent publications on the market or talking to someone who has done a similar trip. The aim is to be self-sufficient as possible. One thing for sure you need your head in gear before tackling problems.)
The leak turns out to be controllable with a dart of Radweld but the Universal joint with a hangover is Another matter: (Top TIP: Like some bush crafts some tricks of the trade can make the difference between you arriving or not. The odd raw egg or curry powder in the radiator to seal a minor leak works. If the leak is bigger remove the radiator cap to release the pressure. This requires regular topping up so not recommended where there is no water. There are hundreds of others tricks here are a few that are well worth noting. FUEL: Always take more than you think you will need. Use a filter when topping up from jerry cans. Sunlight soap can seal a hole in the fuel tank. If you can’t stop the leak put a Jerry Can on the roof connect with a pipe. Know how to bleed you systems. )
An hour later I have uncoupled the shaft. A rummage in the spares discloses that my head is far from in gear. There is no spare. It’s a case of look before you leap. Nothing for it > Refit the old one and drive into Kasane. The Four ways garage can’t help; there is a spare parts shop down the road. Eureka! > Back to Four ways. Two cut knuckles, a throbbing head and the certainty that Murphy’s Law is waiting in the long tall grass blurs my recall of African mechanics. “Can you fit it for me?” It takes all of three hours with a bill of 600 Pula. (Top TIP: Never leave your vehicle unattended. Mechanics are inclined to use excessive force. Never retighten bolts of nuts properly. Replace your new spares with old. Fry everything when electric welding (Forget to disconnect battery/alternator.) I’m in no humor to suffer another Botswana rip off. A heated argument followed. “You’re not dealing with a raw prawn.” “I didn’t arrive in the last shower.” “I’ll call the police” have little effect.
Down the road to the spare parts shop > Back with the owner. There is another half an hour of verbal diarrhoea before my headlights pierce the darkness for home 100 Pula lighter. The gate is closed and locked to keep the hoards in. I make short work of the Chinese lock. With every intention not to wake the girls or more importantly last nights storytellers, I drive the last few kilometres by moonlight. Straining eyes are examining every bush in expectation of startling some critter. Not a soul moves. With no lights, there are no luminous eyes to be seen.
OK let’s hit the road Central Africa is calling. Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, not to mention the Democratic Republic of the Congo. No one is very enthusiast. Some of Africa’s best-known names apart from Lion, Zulu, Famine, Aids, Coup d’état, and Tribe and the like receive a lukewarm reaction. OK! OK! How about? a decent hotel with a hot shower overlooking Victoria falls.
Chobe 11,000 sq kilometres of reserve waits until the final curtain call to show some of its huge elephant and buffalo population. They have evidently learned that the outer limits of the park are the place stay. Well away from human meddling. Not expecting to see anything, we drive into the middle of a buffalo herd. The Chobe bouncers. A mute silence surrounds them as they gawk at us as if savouring the moment. Not even the yellow-billed oxpeckers on their back move. It’s a stand-off.
There is no question as to who has the right of way. Standing 1.7m at the shoulder, with massive horns ‘Syncerus Caffer’ to give them their scientific classification can weigh up to 800kg. Close up these fellows are not to be messed with. Williwaws bull bars don’t look like much of a match against the fifty or so enormous horns all now turned towards us. After what seems a never-ending period of time we slowly begin to back up only to become conscious that we are now surrounded. Out of the bush to our rescue has come the Jungle Patrol.
A large bull elephant accompanied by aunties and young are now also disputing the right of way. Ear flapping, making no distinction between us and the offending buffalos it not long before we receive a mock charge that tests our bodily functions. Such charges make dramatic footage on TV wildlife programs here for real, it freaks the girls and exposes a definite yellow streak in my upbringing. This is not the time to be hanging out the window offering bread buns. Raw nature makes your hair stand on end in more ways than one. Panic! All advice say’s “Hold your ground it’s only a mock charge.” The ground trembles. The spook buffaloes add an extra shuddering to terra firma. We turned a whiter shade of pale in a bat an eyelid the moment vanishes into the bush. We are left with a sense of sexual pleasure little shudders running up our bodies. The exit gate to Chobe arrives and goes without us noticing. For the first time in months, we are back on tarmac.
An hour later at Kazangula still charged with excitement, we wait our turn to cross the Zambezi – the forth-longest river of the Continent. (3,540 km) it drains an area of 1,300,000 sq km. Rising in northwestern Zambia it flows through eastern Angola crosses western Zambia, along the northeastern border of Botswana, forming the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Creating on its way the world’s famous Victoria Falls and man’s largest made lake – Kariba. Giving its name to Zambia it crosses central Mozambique to become the only major African river to flow into the Indian Ocean.
Kazangula is one of those places on a map that exudes the idiosyncrasy of colonialism boundary making. Namibia, the Caprivi Strip, Botwswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, all having shares in the dot. As with all ferry crossings, it is a hive of activity, a gaudy mire of passing news, buying and selling, eating or drinking opportunities. A pickpocket’s favourite hunting grounds. For us, it is where we leave Botswana, although the frontier crossing is another seven kilometres down the riverbank on the Zambia side of a mile wide rock rim that forms world’s widest expanse of falling water. (To be continued)
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